Office Slavery

I don’t think I need explain how much I love the world of tech. I love the software and hardware and firmware and wares of all gradations on the digital Moh Scale in between. I love smartphones and watches and ebooks and media players and social networking services and maxiblogs and miniblogs and microblogs. I love audioboo and audiobooks. I love earphones and earplugs and visors and touchscreens and MUDs and HUDs and apps and apple and applets.

And yet. Oh and yet…

Most mornings I have to get up unfeasibly early just to keep my head above the rising tide of emails, direct messages and voicemails that have flooded my various inboxes. For two hours I reply to these and fiddle and faddle and fossick and finagle. This morning it’s been four hours and I’m still owing at least fifty responses. I am not alone in this. It might be that I have more to get through than most, but I’m sure there are others with even heavier caseloads to deal with.

When I watch an old TV sketch or drama set in an office it takes some time to spot What’s Wrong With This Picture. Most business people didn’t have computers on their desks until the mid-eighties. Desks had intercoms, pads of paper, an electronic calculator and executive toys like the Newton’s Cradle and the 8-Ball Decision maker. You look at a busy police incident room, a buzzing news room or any kind of office from the pre-digital age and you realise that there are no computers and you try and remember how work got done back then.

Well, there were people called secretaries. They would file documents, pay and send out invoices and arrange meetings and run diaries. They would type up and send letters that were dictated, sometimes personally, often into recording machines.

“Can I use your dictaphone?” “No, use your finger like everyone else”

The computer revolution that has set us all free has actually come close to enslaving us. Executives who once relied on secretaries to do their typing and their admin now have to do it all themselves. They even have to get their own coffee and pinch their own bottoms.

I suppose it’s good for the soul, but it doesn’t half give one pause.

Oh well. Back to the inbox. And then I’ll have to think of things to twitter. And then it’ll be lunchtime and I’ll come back to another fifty emails.

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58 comments on “Office Slavery”

  1. iRap says:

    Maybe we should hire a secretary to read our e-mails, manage our tweets and get that blasted cup of coffee with the right amount cream and sugar.

  2. LewisQ says:

    I think your predicament probably reveals as much about the pitfalls of conscientiousness as it does those of technology. I’m a lazy misanthrope, people eventually get the message. Not even the penis enlargers or 419ers trouble me anymore!

  3. missofie says:

    Oh, I so fully agree. I also worry sometimes about the poor filing that comes with email. Sure it’s fine that one can always search for an important email using keywords, but what if one forgets that the email even existed? The same goes for internet searches. Google etc. usually yield newer pages. But the best page about whatever it is you’re searching for may have been written five years ago. I hope these problems will get fixed as the internet gets older and they get more acute.

    And… if I had to spend 4 hours answering emails I think I’d get a secretary all the same.

  4. heidiroslein says:

    Stephen, let me be your assistant and I’ll take on some of those hours of computer work for you. We can combine the past secretary age with the modern computer age. I think we’d get on very well!

  5. moshuajoody says:

    If you had a secretary, he might have caught the error in the first sentence of the seventh paragraph.

    I’m for hire….

  6. StevenBullen says:

    “And… if I had to spend 4 hours answering emails I think I’d get a secretary all the same.”

    lol I agree!

  7. drdark says:

    I remember reading somewhere that we only use about 10% of our brain-power. I await the module while I can plug in to my head which would all the other 90% to carry out tasks in the background while I can trouble myself with the task at hand…

  8. drdark says:

    I can’t believe I made so many mistakes in the above comment :(. So I’ll use the excuse that I’m fasting…

  9. Hatster says:

    In a world where technological advances are supposed to make us more efficient at everything, why do we have less and less time to do those things?

  10. colinwheeler says:

    There is an interesting article about this behaviour at which show why we as humans are constantly chasing this sort of information.

  11. nrepka says:

    Forgive my bluntness, but it looks like you’re trapped in a cage of your own making. What about beauty sleep? Emails can wait. :)

  12. inckognito says:

    Thank you very much for ‘my’ reply, Stephen! I have been happy since morning, still is!

    This is your work – to make people happy! You’re a happy-maker :)

    PS. If some day you decided to hire a PA or a “bottom-pincher” (sorry!), just remember – I could do that my whole life for free! ;)

    Thanks for everything!


  13. keeno says:

    perhaps one day you could sneakily put a carefuly worded “out of office” which will likely cover most eventualities, and contain a few smile inducing observations, or perhaps a link to something awesome. But not actually refer to itself as an out of office. Pretend it’s an actual answer to their email.

    then the next day when you’ve recouperated and everyone’s emailnig back saying “i beg your pardon” you simply say “My goodness, yesterday was an odd one”
    then proceed as normal

  14. Linda52 says:

    I can’t believe that you even try to read all your emails and twitters. I just assume that your responses are random. Don’t bother with it all. We love you but love to hear/see our own voices on your website. Hugs, hugs and more hugs. Hope you are having a fabu time in NYC.

  15. Gertrude Susanne says:

    I´m afraid it has become too easy to “get in touch” with you, dearest Mr Fry. People (including myself) would think twice about dropping you a line if they had to actually sit down, get out pen and paper and start scribbling. Sadly, letter writing is so “out”. Twittering, texting, emailing etc. is fast and easy – too fast, too easy perhaps. The choice of wording may also not always be the most fortunate as a result. From now on, in case I should feel I need to share any thoughs or feedback with you (for what it´s worth), I shall do so as I did pre-Twitter: using pen and paper – and I´ll probably enjoy it more than having to restrict myself to 140 characters anyway, as I cannot seem to keep it short (you know how it is…). And every minute that goes towards writing a letter shall be a token of my appreciation of your work, wit, kindness and dedication. And please: N!RSVP2DM
    Thanks for your patience. GS

  16. livefromnyc says:

    analogue is the future – to some extent. i to love electronic bits and bobs, but have been saying for sometime now that they are tools, and like any tool they have their place. email in the work place has become a way to get someone else to do your job – should be called pass the buck mail. my moto is pick up the bloody phone

  17. lucecannon says:

    The legal world (the world of soliciting) still uses quaint old dictaphones (albethey digital) and secretarys. I even hear tell of dictation at smart London law firms which is typed up in India by night.
    You are in the wrong profession, Mr Fry

  18. lostfamilies says:

    I find that reading my e-mails & looking at the blogs i follow first thing in the morning is a great way to start the day, no doubt i don’t have as many as you Stephen, but we wouldn’t have all this if we had a office of yesterter year.
    Just think before all the advances how long it take to send a letter overseas now with a click of a button our letters arrive via e-mails, faxes ect so while i do say i wish we could be back in the past for the community spirit i wouldn’t want the advances we made to be gone well most any way.

  19. gjhsu says:

    It’s so very unfortunate you had to fire Tony Murchison :(

  20. gjhsu says:

    But, seriously, you deserve time to yourself as we all do. You just happen to make us all happy.

  21. marzgirl says:

    Aww…someone beat me. I was going to offer up my ample bottom for pinching. Will you be taking resumes? How much experience does a bottome require for such a position?

  22. sarcasmo says:

    Sounds like the burden of greatness is weighing heavily on you Mr. Fry. You could always become a Luddite… problem solved!

  23. Kit_White says:

    I absolutely agree with your post here, Stephen. I’ve been retired for five years now; yet I find myself interacting more with technology now than I did when I was working.

    It’s exhausting to keep up with a PC, a laptop and an iPhone, plus going back to school (online) and attempting to understand all the new technology there. Ridiculous is the only word that comes to mind.

    Even when I’m “relaxing”, I’m on the laptop….fiddle farting around. It never ends.


  24. nonoyesyes says:

    Hello! I had to really think about whether or not to send a reply because I have so little in the way of all those gizzmos gadgets and etceterers… lol…however, as for being a ‘slave’ to the computer Oh Mighty Stephen Fry of the cyber spaces… I am zombie – like in my application of self to the 4 or 5 web pages I keep; the messages email and other in avalances daily and it really keeps me on my toes!!
    Praps a secretary would be in order for your fine self however, being so much in the limelight and such a magnet for communication!
    Whatever…. I know we all appreciate each and very communication sent by Yourself so thank you from across the cyber spaces!
    I don’t really have a solution to offer… I suppose being a slave in devotion to the world of the internet does kind of take over…
    I really appreciate your enormous capacity for communication!
    [I did not study this for typos so excuse in advance if there are any]

  25. katiemuffett says:

    Oh my, do I love this entry (dirty?). I spent years since building up experience and professionalism as a secretary. All the while, priding myself on not having wasted a single penny on ridiculous “certificates” that teach 20yo witless wonders how to create a new desktop shortcut.

    After leaving my last PA job for health reasons, I’ve watched various apps, Blackberries, etc. literally stealing my work. Talking to the gagillions of job agencies that have me on a waiting list, all lament the complete dearth of office assistant vacancies. Secretaries who currently have jobs are holding on for dear life, terrified each time a new sweep of redundancies infects their office. What about those of us who can’t afford education or have the means to be the Big Shot in the office, but make a decent wage looking after them?

    I love technology and progress too, it helps me stay in touch with a lot of friends/family who are out of my physical reach. But human beings need work to earn money to eat food and have a home. Economy needs to catch up with all this gadgetry.

    Anyway, it’s nice to know we’re missed! End of whinge – thank you.

  26. Len says:

    That’s what Marshall McLuhan was on about. Every new technology adds something (what he called “enhancement”) and takes something away (what he called an “obsolescence.”) And each new technology changes us in fundamental, irrevocable ways. “Man makes the tool and then the tool makes Man.” In the rush to embrace a new gadget and what it adds, we usually forget to balance that against what would be lost by its adoption.

  27. eowyningreen says:

    I’ll be your secretary if you like. I’d do it for free :-)

  28. JulesLt says:

    If you are of a certain age and attitude, then you do get someone else to read your inbox and dictate your emails too.

    I suspect that you, on the other hand, would be the kind of person who always insisted on writing their own correspondence.

  29. corriewarburton says:

    Well I for one wouldn’t mind a techno holiday. Wouldn’t it be nice to have just one week in your normal working environ without all the incessant beeping and whirring.
    I would love to be your secretary but I can’t spell very well.

  30. chumley says:

    You brought memories back of having worked in a head office in 1977. The “computer” took up one complete floor of the building, and older attractive secretaries ruled the world. Or so I thought as a lowly mailroom employee. Such fun with elastic bands. I imagine mailrooms have evolved into “server rooms.”

    P.S. I think there was alot of pinching going on in the advertising department.

  31. ClareM says:

    “They would file documents, pay and send out invoices and arrange meetings and run diaries. They would type up and send letters that were dictated, sometimes personally, often into recording machines.”

    I’m a surveyor’s PA and this is effectively my job description plus some office management, health & safety (ugh!) and financial stuff. My role is to deal with as much of the admin as possible and let my boss concentrate on earning fees. I like being an administrator, he likes being a surveyor. It sounds dreadfully old fashioned but it’s one of the best jobs I’ve had.

  32. Furry Canary says:

    I spent some 25 years working in IT. When I started, we were all informed with confidence and authority that the advances to which we were contributing would provide a future of increased leisure and prosperity for all.

    That went well, then.

    The bottom line? Information expands to fit the space available.

  33. rosa says:

    Hello, This is my first comment as I’ve only just joined.
    I just wanted to say how nice & polite this site seems – very civilized.
    I love using computers, E-mails etc but try to keep all that to a minimum as you need time for real physical life.

  34. Ophius says:

    It really is amazing how we have become so entranced by technology and strive at all times to possess the newest, fastest, and most powerful pieces of technology, without even looking at the price tag. Knowing what reply to 50 e-mails and texts every day, I can say with the utmost confidence that even though it has taken up a significant amount of time from my day, it has become a daily routine. Almost a ritual, a symbolic rite that I perform every morning to maintain my social, profession, and academic standing. But in the end, I choose to do it and can just as easily chose not to. That is why, I believe, that we have allowed ourselves to be enslaved by our technology and even sometimes enjoy it. Constantly mesmerized by the flashy lights, lost in the countless videos of Youtube, trying to keep up with our Twitter updates to somehow validate our existence and share in our common experiences and feel like a part of something, we welcome our technology not because it enslaves us, but because we want to be enslaved. When we give ourselves up to something, a machine, or rather a social obligation, that dictates that we MUST answer e-mails, it makes choices about what to and when to do it easier.

  35. richardporteous says:

    And here I sit, cynical old me, ridiculing you for being enslaved in such a comprehensive manner. Someone of your stature really should be much more organised. As for me, well I jointly run a small company and we do well. I have just finished work, so many emails to respond to and a never-ending stream of projects to manage. Never mind, it’s only 2155 and………….oh bugger, I’m in the same boat. Any available Moneypenny’s out there?

  36. HillmanMynx says:

    As a former Secretary, often referred to as ‘the girl’ or ‘my girl’ (my girl will get it for you), I’m thrilled to see that it has taken soooooo much time and technology to make us redundant.

    Rock on Stephen!!!!

  37. sgp says:

    Isn’t the point that instead of you spending 3 hours responding to correspondence, then your secretary spending 8 hours typing it up from the dictaphone, you now spend 4 hours responding directly, thereby saving 7 hours of human tedium?

    Would things be better if hundreds of thousands of people were employed like Dolly Parton in 9-5, like it was until the mid-1980s? Isn’t this an improvement on the overall quality of life for the average working/middle-class westerner?

    I think that it is, but then I am a hardcore geek, so maybe I would feel that way anyway…

  38. taluta says:

    Well goodness, gosh & gracious me. I’ve just spent the better part of two hours struggling to log on to the site via my mobile. My laptop & only link to normality died abt a month ago & for the first time in almost 20years I find myself computerless, suffering from internetlessness & countless other techno withdrawal symptoms which I really should be blogging about so the masses may be warned. But on this tiny little phone it’s likely to take 3hours to get one paragraph out, so perhaps not…. Or perhaps…. Seriously though, I’m the worst kind of tech addict. I repaired my first cassette recorder before I was a teen (mid to late 70’s) moved on to dismantling VCR’s and TV’s. BUT until I wrote my first computer program on a ZX Spectrum back in the 80’s I did not know true love or in my case more of an obsessive compulsive addiction ;-) Losing my job due to the poor economy in August 2009 & unable to find another has thrust me into tech hell. Never mind that I cant afford to pay for my son to finish his basic education. Never mind that I’m forced to live with a parent whose very presence has driven my son & I to the brink of suicidal depression; never mind any of that, as long as we had technology we were fine. As someone who has, when I worked, had secretaries complain they were bored, I was too much of a control freak to let anyone do work for me. Trust me when I say that whilst I may wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of techno time wasting, over commitment, multi-media multi-platform multi tasking insanity: I’ve seen the other side, I am living in the shadow of the silicon valley of death thrown into a techno winter surviving on scraps, selling possessions to keep the wolf at the door but I tell you this, technology is my oxygen & though this has taken me abt 90mins to write on the keypad of a nokia 6085, I’d rather do this than the paper alternative because I’m a slave to the techno rhythm!

  39. robbiedudeuk says:

    Office work was a drudge until computer DOS changed to computer Windows so bored secretaries could look outside in a different way, through computer Windows into a cyberworld. BTW that dictaphone gag nevers dulls by repetition!

  40. campbellnk says:

    At the not so ripe age of 37 my first office experience included the annoyances of fiddling with carbon copy paper. Indeed, the computer software I once used thirteen years ago when working in electronic publishing is now obsolete as are my once sharply honed office skills. I didn’t have a mobile phone until I was 28. Has anyone noticed the absence of public phone booths?

  41. HartlepoolLisa says:

    At my last job as an executive assistant my boss had me write hand written notes to people he met on business trips. I can imagine they were confused by the feminine hand writing. He also had me write emails and letters for him since he wasn’t a good speller or writer. Its amazing that men can reach executive management levels at large corporations and pull in six figures with such poor English skills but they can and they do and that is what keeps “administrative professionals” in work. There may come a day when executives can teleport to work, but they will still be too stupid and lazy to sit down and write their own correspondence and no amount of technology is really going to change that.

  42. smoni says:

    I look forward to the future, when we can look back and see how antiquated our offices, technology and desks are in 2009! I salivate at the thought of what wonders gadgets are in store for us! **dreewls**

  43. magikquilter says:

    Well said….we gain something but we lose something too. Many bloggers I know say they spend more time emailing blog readers than family and friends. I understand why now and am grateful that emails are short ..and twitter even more so.

    You know this may not be a technology issue as much as a manners and upbringing issue…you Stephen are so well brought up and so charming that it is a natural part of you to reply or read everything sent to you…its what makes you the person you are.

    A very Happy Belated Birthday Stephen …were some of those many many emails birthday greetings I wonder?

  44. telletdl says:

    Progress: being able to do in two hours that which we never had to do before.

  45. DaoLore says:

    You obviously need an assistant,Stephen! you have such a flood of letters, you can drive you mad

  46. shibumi says:

    Stephen, sounds like maybe you are too generous with your precious time. Less is more, as the hackneyed phrase goes.

    So instead of spending two+ hours doing email/internet stuff, may I suggest paring this down to 30min (with only the most essential things being addressed–and I mean essential), and devoting that extra time to sitting quietly in the garden or further honing your creative/comic genius with some writing (pen and paper!) ;-)

    Yours, TS

  47. Alex_Hill85 says:

    Thank you for another insightful miniblog. Sorry to add to your inbox of never ending messages but I really wanted to let you know that I appreciate how very hard you work. Thank you.

    Brisbane, Austarlia.

  48. Rookster says:

    Ah yes Stephen, I remember working in such environments and being a slave to the dictaphone and paperwork in triplicate, implementing filing systems and towers of archive boxes! Then when I moved to PR and remember the dreadful days of dial-up. Oh dear me, having to make half a dozen calls and then logging on only to spend ridiculous amounts of time sending just one image to a publication, before having to stop sending and make more calls as I couldn’t do both at the same time. I agree we can be slaves to the information highway but I prefer that to the old way of doing things and being buried in amountain of paperwork and files!

    Also Stephen, I for one appreciate your personal touch; all too often we get the automated response with no depth, integrity or feeling and can never be sure we are talking to who we thnk we are. I hope knowing your effort is appreciated takes a little the strain.

    Thank you! xxxx

  49. judinw8 says:

    I love the concept of pinching one’s own bottom. I do type my own letters, get my own tea, keep my own diary but do not work in a field where any pinching is approved of. Perhaps this is the solution!

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